50 Years of Progress – NIEHS Anniversary Video


In the 1950s, the country was at a crossroads. Many Americans were living the good life,
but it came at a price, a price to our health-that we didn’t comprehend. Then, in 1962, one book changed everything. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring painted a picture of
a world so poisoned by pesticides that no birds remained in the spring. The book sold 6 million copies in 30 languages
and it was a call to action for the environmental movement worldwide. The following January, North Carolina Governor
Terry Sanford announced that a new environmental health center would be located in
Research Triangle Park. Three years later, on November 1st 1966,
the Division of Environmental Health Sciences was established in RTP by the
National Institutes of Health. Cancer researcher, Dr. Paul Kotin, was named the division’s first director. Over the next five years, Kotin
and Dr. Hans Faulk worked with their small team to build a
strong foundation for research success. This included several university partnerships
that remain active today. The division gained institute status on
January 12, 1969. Its charge was to reduce human illness by understanding how the environment causes disease. Seven years after Silent Spring, environmental health was firmly established as a national research priority. Dr. David Rall became director on March 1st, 1971. “Here was an opportunity to build an institute
that is really very rare indeed: to do research that not only is at the cutting edge, but that
provides practical answers to important problems…. . . .environmental health is an international problem.” . . .an international problem that needed
an international voice. So in 1972, the Institute published the first edition of
Environmental Health Perspectives, a monthly, peer-reviewed, scientific journal
that became a trusted source for environment and
health research, worldwide. Under Rall’s leadership, the 1970s were a
time of important scientific progress. Research found evidence that the environment
does influence people’s health. Exposure to lead was with linked to lower I-Q, and the pregnancy drug, DES,
was linked to cancer. Then came Love Canal. In 1978, hundreds of people living near a
chemical dump in Love Canal, New York reported serious health problems. President Jimmy Carter declared a
federal health emergency, and David Rall pushed to synchronize
the government’s toxicology research. From that time forward, Rall, and every
institute director after him, would wear two hats, director of the NIEHS,
and director of the National Toxicology Program. Congress mandated that NTP would
produce bi-annual reports on chemicals that cause cancer. The first “Report on Carcinogens,”
was published in July of 1980. In 1987, the Superfund Research Program
was established to address waste dumps, contamination and safe clean-up. On June 18, 1991, Dr. Kenneth Olden began his
14-year tenure as director. Under his leadership,
basic research continued to thrive, and environmental justice took center stage. The Six Cities Study was an early success for Olden. It found a strong association between
fine particulate pollution and mortality. In 1994, institute researchers had a
medical triumph when they discovered that a defective BRCA-1 gene can
cause breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. This was a huge step forward for
diagnosis and treatment. A month later, former scientific director
Martin Rodbell won the 1994 Nobel Prize in
Physiology and Medicine. He confirmed the existence of G proteins,
which regulate cell communication. September 11, 2001…. The World Trade Center is attacked. That devastating event raised enormous
public health concerns. The institute responded immediately. Experts were sent to ground zero to collect
dust samples for toxicology studies. In 2002, the institute recruited more than
50,000 sisters of women with breast cancer. The Sister Study set out on a long-term
research journey to identify the environmental and genetic factors that increase breast cancer risk. Dr. David Schwartz, a physician specializing
in environmental lung disease, became the fourth institute director in May of 2005. Dr. Schwartz led the Institute toward
cutting-edge science including epigenetics and exposure phenotyping. He started the Exposure Biology Program and supported development of new
technologies for sensor devices. Swartz valued and emphasized
disease research, and he planned a new clinical research unit for
the North Carolina campus. Dr. Linda Birnbaum took over in January, 2009. She was the first female scientist,
and first toxicologist, to head the Institute and
the National Toxicology Program. Under her leadership, learning
about chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system
became a research priority. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers. The Institute launched the Gulf Long-term
Follow-up Study, the largest study ever conducted on the health effects of oil spills. Later, when 10,000 gallons of chemicals
spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River, the National Toxicology Program
jumped into action. In record time, it analyzed the chemicals,
allowing public health officials to determine if drinking water was safe for
thousands of residents. In 2015, another member of the institute
family won a Nobel Prize. Grantee Dr. Aziz Sancar shared the Prize
in Chemistry for his work on DNA mismatch repair, a process that corrects
damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, air pollution, cigarette smoke
and other environmental agents. Now in 2016, NIEHS is celebrating its
golden anniversary; celebrating its past, but also looking to the future. What will the next 50 years bring? How will the institute’s research actually
help people live healthier lives? The answers are there’waiting to be discovered. Because as we all know,
our environment is our health!

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